The long political transition in Nepal has come to an end with the successful completion of local, provincial and federal elections. A new phase of history beckons Nepal as it has adopted federalism under the new constitution promulgated in 2015. The achievement of economic prosperity has now been prioritized as the prime national agenda.
Nepal’s role in international affairs has largely been overshadowed by years of political turmoil and instability due to the decade-long Maoist insurgency that started in 1996 and a decade of political transition thereafter. Due to fragile state of affairs, foreign interference in the internal matters of Nepal has increased drastically since the last decade. During the Cold War era, Nepal carved out an image of a state that conducted an independent foreign policy with considerable clout in the international arena, balancing a sensitive geopolitical neighbourhood. It led to Nepal being elected twice as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Nepal’s contribution in maintaining world peace through United Nations peacekeeping missions has also been exemplary.
As a small state sandwiched between its two giant neighbours, India and China, Nepal has found it difficult to exert geopolitical influence in the international arena. Nepal firmly believes in the principles of the Panchsheel and non-alignment, and is proud of being independent throughout its history.
India has traditionally considered South Asia its sphere of influence. However, the status quo has been challenged by China’s proactive foreign policy and diplomacy in South Asia in recent times. Most South Asian countries have joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) initiated by China, much to India’s displeasure. Nepal’s crucial geopolitical location dictates that it is absolutely necessary for it to maintain an independent foreign policy to protect and promote its national interests.
In an anarchic world order, safeguarding sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence are the fundamental responsibilities of a state. Small states are vulnerable to external threats and so it is crucial for them to direct their foreign policy maneuverings in an apt way to ensure survival. The electoral victory of the Left Alliance, riding on a wave of nationalist agendas, is expected to result in a stable government which has remained ever elusive. Nepal’s new prime minister, KP Sharma Oli, recently said Nepal would strive for an independent foreign policy and a balanced conduct of external relations with the motto of “Amity with all and enmity with none.” Oli’s remarks regarding Nepal’s foreign policy objectives and priorities could not have come at a more appropriate time – when the dynamics in South Asia are changing. With China steadily extending its political and economic influence in the region, India needs to reorient its foreign policy to gain the confidence of its neighbours.
Maintaining balanced and cordial relations with India and China are the top priorities of Nepalese foreign policy. Nepal does not seek benefits from one neighbour at the cost of the other. Nepal’s relationship with both India and China are deeply rooted in history. Due to the open border as well as cultural and familial linkages, the people-to-people relationship between Nepal and India is stronger than that between Nepal and China. Similarly, the majority of Nepal’s international trade is with and through India. However, as Nepal and China have already agreed to upgrade the existing connectivity via the Rasuwagadhi-Kerung border, it can be hoped that the asymmetric dependence with India will be greatly reduced in the days ahead.
Being the largest country and economy in South Asia, India can contribute a lot in the development of its neighbours rather than taking unnecessary interests in their internal matters. Nepal faced months of economic blockade from India in the aftermath of the promulgation of the constitution in 2015 for not paying heed to its concerns while drafting the constitution. The nationalist stance taken by the Nepalese people against such means of coercive diplomacy ultimately led India to lift the blockade and forced it to rethink its Nepal policy. As Nepal and India share ancient ties, a single untoward event cannot be a deterrent in the vitality of the overall bilateral relationship. Relations with India are on the mend and it can be expected that it will further get cemented after Oli’s upcoming visit to India.
Sino-Nepal bilateral relations have been based on the principles of sovereign equality. Nepal has always adhered to the “One-China Policy.” The relationship has been further strengthened in recent years with the signing of a transit treaty and Nepal’s accession to the BRI. Although the projects to be carried out under the BRI are yet to be ascertained, Nepal should make sure that it does not fall into an unnecessary debt trap and must choose projects in a manner that serves its national interests. China sees Nepal as a potential gateway to South Asia if proper connectivity can be put into place, although India is adverse to such an idea due to its own security concerns. With China increasing its exertion of soft power globally, it is obvious that South Asia cannot remain isolated from its influence.
As Nepal begins a new journey towards political stability and economic development, it is essential for it to move beyond the small-state syndrome and create a distinct identity of its own in the international arena as in the past. Nepal should strive to adopt an independent foreign policy and the foreign policy decision-making should be proactive rather than reactive. Therefore, judgement of international events and situations should be made in an unbiased and independent manner instead of blindly following the stance of world powers or neighbouring countries. Nepal seeks goodwill and cooperation from the international community to realize its dream of economic prosperity. Although Nepal faces a lot of challenges in the days ahead, its glorified history in the international arena can act as a precursor in regaining the international stature of its heyday.